Zafarullah Khan, 66, shows the frame for a beehive he received from Caritas Pakistan on March 21 at Village 40SB in Sargodha district of Pakistan's Punjab province. (Photo by Kamran Chaudhry/ucanews.com)
Yaqoob Masih is the first Christian beekeeper in his remote village in Pakistan's Punjab province.
Born and raised among farmers, laborers and owners of small tuck shops, Masih was searching for a way to provide for his family after his father passed away.
"I was only six months old when he died in an accident. My mother raised seven kids by working as a housemaid and stitching clothes. She is my role model," said the 45-year-old.
"She wanted all of us to get an education but that wasn't feasible. I tried many times to find a job before I ended up at a technical college."
After spending several years running an electronics store, Masih was able to lease a 10,000-square-meter plot of agricultural land in 2017 in Village 50 of Punjab's Khushab district.
But after torrential rains in March, rows of black pests started appearing on the green blades of his standing crops of wheat and fodder. Masih had to buy expensive pesticides from a local market despite having already taken out a 20,000-rupee (US$142) loan.
"I get fertilizers from a shopkeeper after I promised I'd pay him back using the income from my next yield," he said. "But I've hardly been able to cover my expenses as the heat wave last year hammered my cotton crop."
Pashtun beekeepers teach farmers in Village 50MB the art of beekeeping on March 21. (Photo by Mehnaz/ucanews.com)
Seeds of change
Masih joined a farmers' collective after the launch of the Smallholder Adaptive Farming and Biodiversity Network (SAFBIN) in April 2018.
Since then, Caritas Pakistan has held awareness sessions on climate change, nutritious food, the recycling of farm products and composting units for more than 7,000 farmers, including 2,000 women.
The biggest Catholic organization in the country also handed over different varieties of seeds to more than 300 farmers of Khushab and Sargodha districts last year. Another 150 received cowshed materials.
Masih was one of 20 farmers in these districts who each received five honey boxes on March 21 as part of a SAFBIN program.
Caritas teams organized apiculture (beekeeping) training at various farms prior to their distribution.
The equipment included protective gloves and hats, bee boxes, frames for hives and honey strainers and extractors. It was the first time the Catholic charity has introduced local farmers to the art of apiculture.
"The initiative is meant to support farmers with not much land and show them how to make their farms more integrated and connected," said Amir Irfan, the program's national coordinator for livelihood and food security.
"Priority was given to widows whose families were willing to care for honey bees. The pollination will further fertile the land," he said.
"We are focusing on increasing the biodiversity, production and income of their farms. Instead of totally relying on their crops, they will be encouraged to adopt alternate means of income such as raising rabbits and rearing more livestock in coming months," Irfan added.
Caritas Pakistan procured bee boxes from Peshawar. (Photo by Kamran Chaudhry/ucanews.com)
Getting rid of go-betweens
According to Amjad Gulzar, executive director of Caritas Pakistan, middlemen pose the biggest challenge to small farmers.
"Due to the farmers' relatively small yields, they avoid renting vehicles to access bigger markets. Most sell their crops to a middleman, who buys it at a lower price. We are urging them to gather their yields in groups to ensure a better deal directly with the government," he said.
This also works to boost interfaith harmony, he added.
"Similarly, many trees that are essential for beehives to thrive have been lost due to deforestation."
Pakistan has just 2 percent forest cover, according to reports.
Addressing this concern, Caritas kicked off its "one million tree campaign" in December 2016. More than 700,000 saplings have been planted since then in various parts of the country.
Yaqoob Masih (right) joins a group of 10 farmers who are holding out their national identity cards so they receive the bee boxes from Caritas Pakistan on March 21. (Photo by Kamran Chaudhry/ucanews.com)
There are roughly 7,000 beekeepers in Pakistan but very few of them are Christian farmers. The country produces over 12,000 metric tons of honey a year.
Like other Muslim beneficiaries of the SAFBIN program, Masih has laid blue-colored bee boxes near his farm's irrigation channels.
The group said it plans to raise bee colonies and share the profits.
"Only ethnic Pashtuns are commercial beekeepers in our district. I thank Caritas for initiating this joint collaboration," he said.
"The organic honey will also be good for my 10-year-old daughter. The bees can produce about two kilograms in 10 days in peak season per hive. So yeah, it's a pretty sweet deal."
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